Tony Massaro and Gus DeJohn took to cycling for the exercise, scenic views and fresh air.
The first time they straddled their bikes and clipped the chinstraps of their helmets, neither intended to become the organizing force to bring professional bicycling to the streets of South Philadelphia.
But by Columbus Day 2003, the lifelong friends hope to be among the spectators watching a pack of cyclists zip through the city, set against the backdrop of places like Marconi Plaza, East Passyunk Avenue and the Italian Market.
Massaro, 47, who works nights as a dispatcher and truck driver for the Philadelphia Inquirer, said he thought of the idea a year and a half ago and told DeJohn, a real-estate broker.
"I said, ‘South Philadelphia needs something new,’" recalled Massaro.
At the time, neither man had been biking for long, but they began to navigate the Web to pitch an idea for a pro cycling race. They contacted Jerry Casale, chief operating officer for Threshold Sports in Norristown.
Casale’s company does sports marketing and event management strictly for cycling and manages the eight-event Pro Cycling Tour, which includes the wildly popular First Union USPRO Championship race through Manayunk, Fairmount and Center City.
Massaro and DeJohn, 46, believe the tour’s success could be duplicated in South Philly. DeJohn, of the 900 block of McClellan Street, has attended 10 of the 18 USPRO Championship Races, including the inaugural event.
"It is just outrageous up there," he said. DeJohn has watched the event explode from a few thousand spectators in its early years to what it is today — June’s race attracted 750,000 spectators and brought millions in revenue to the city.
"This could turn out to be a whole weekend event," DeJohn said of a South Philly race. He envisions coordinating the event with the Columbus Day Parade and various Italian festivals. Also, he believes it is the perfect way to attract attention to revitalization projects on East Passyunk Avenue and in the Italian Market.
Massaro, of the 1300 block of South 10th Street, pedals 48 miles from his home to Valley Forge three times a week, but predicted the event would have an appeal beyond avid riders like himself. He thinks the race could fill the hole left by the Mummers when they moved from Broad Street to Market. Cyclists could be welcomed as South Philly’s new local heroes, Massaro suggested.
"I’m telling you," he said, "this event is going to blow South Philly wide open."
Casale, of Threshold Sports, likes the idea of adding a Pro Cycling Tour stop in South Philly, according to Massaro. The Threshold executive was in California for the circuit San Francisco Grand Prix and could not be reached. Massaro and DeJohn flew west to join him on Friday.
As of now, the local event is being shopped to sponsors as the South Philadelphia Grand Prix. The organizers said interest from potential financial backers has been strong. Some large regional companies are close to signing on, Massaro said, but he declined to identify them until the deals were finalized.
One organization that has committed to the race is the American Leukemia Society. The agency will hold a charity bike race in the morning before the main event, Massaro said.
Tentatively, the race route will be 4 miles long and riders will compete 15-20 laps. The course will begin and end at Marconi Plaza. At the start, riders will push north along Broad Street, turning right at East Passyunk. They will continue on the avenue to Ninth Street and make a left into the Italian Market. The course will briefly head west on Washington Avenue before heading north on 10th Street, then back in the opposite direction on Passyunk and south on Broad Street.
Massaro and DeJohn should know by January if the race is on schedule for next year. They remain confident in the meantime.
"I can see that happening," DeJohn said. "We already have a good start with the people in South Philadelphia and everyone we have talked to is all for it."